Shell-Weiss on Hewitt, 'Southern Discomfort: Women's Activism in Tampa, Florida, 1880s-1920s'

Nancy A. Hewitt. Southern Discomfort: Women's Activism in Tampa, Florida, 1880s-1920s. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001. ix + 345 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-02682-9; $20.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-07191-1.

Reviewed by Melanie R. Shell-Weiss (Department of History, Michigan State University)
Published on H-Florida (November, 2002)

Nancy Hewitt's Southern Discomfort: Women's Activism in Tampa, Florida, 1880s-1920s is far more than a simple case study of women and political activity in one Florida city. Matching meticulous research with vivid prose, Hewitt explores the connections and divisions that shaped Latin, Anglo and African American women's political activities during this period of rapid growth and development. At the same time her conclusions encourage us to think in new ways about the construction of race and ethnicity, in both local and transnational contexts.

Southern Discomfort opens with the story of Luisa Capetillo, a Puerto Rican woman who had left her son in her mother's care and moved to Tampa to work as a "lector," or reader, in the city's cigar factories in 1912. Capetillo fit few of the standard categories used to describe Southern women. She was Hispanic, and did not fit easily into the rigid bi-racialism of the Jim Crow South. She dressed in men's clothing and worked what was then considered a man's job. She favored anarchism, feminism, and advocated mixed-sex, inter-racial, and class-based political organizations. For all of these reasons, Capetillo's life history provides the perfect introduction to the world of Tampa women's political activism at the turn of the twentieth century and exemplifies "the fault lines of women's activism in the southern United States" (p. 5). In Hewitt's words, "This book shows in concrete ways how women of diverse racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds vied with one another, with city officials, employers, and co-workers, and with men in their own community to claim public space, fashion political agendas, and construct activist identities" (p. 9).

Hewitt identifies 1901 as a critical moment for Tampa's women, and divides her work accordingly. Part 1, entitled "The Making of a Multiracial City," focuses on the first major wave of Tampa's urban development and industrial growth, from 1880 to 1901. African-American women's activism and the formation of African-American political, social and religions organizations (including the Odd Fellows, Tampa's Negro Militia and African Methodist Episcopal Church) are the focus of chapter 1. But as Tampa moved from being a frontier city on the edge of the Cotton South to a city on the "economic frontier of the global economy," the political interests and immigration of Spanish, Cuban and Italian men and women were of increasing importance (p. 37). Where fears of race-mixing limited women's political activism in the late-nineteenth century across the South, the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain inspired many Latin women to enter the public sphere. The Spanish-American War dwarfed, for a time, local concern over biracial divides and racial hegemony. But by 1901, as Anglo and African American troops left Tampa, class and race issues dominated the city's political landscape, forcing "women seeking to improve their lives or transform their society ... to choose more self-consciously the identities and issues around which they mobilized" (p. 136).

Part 2, "Kaleidoscopic Connections," focuses on the shifting relationships and divides among Anglo, African American, and Latin women activists across the city from 1902 to the eve of the Great Depression. Where part 1 focuses on the movement of individuals in and out of Tampa, and the shifting relationship between Tampa and its regional and international neighbors, part 2 is more rigidly framed by the city itself. Housing shortages, problems of governance, and lack of uniform access to the city plagued Tampa as in other boomtowns across the South. But it was the imposition of harsh Jim Crow regulations that proved the greatest challenge, and presented the most severe limitations on Tampa's development. "Although the streets had been paved and the sidewalks poured, the shifting sands of race, class, ethnic and gender relations still defined the terrain on which women activists pursued their work" (p. 137). Hewitt sees early-twentieth-century Tampa as resembling a giant kaleidoscope, where a single event forced a turn of the lens, breaking apart and bringing together individuals, institutions, organizations and political movements in new and shifting patterns. At the same time the twentieth century brought more opportunities for women's activism, women faced a much greater range of economic, identity, and class choices. As a result, Hewitt argues, the scope of women's political activism proliferated within Tampa's Latin, Anglo and African American communities. Instead of overturning longstanding barriers of race, class, and ethnicity, however, Tampa's new women remained largely politically isolated from one other. "[W]omen who organized primarily on the basis of sex usually worked within rather than across racial and ethnic lines," Hewitt writes. "And most women activists, whatever their most salient concerns and identities, still shared goals and established coalitions with men of their own community more often than with women of another" (p. 249). The kaleidoscope turned one more time, however, through the 1920s, sparking development of a core set of inter-racial and inter-ethnic alliances among Tampa's women through the formation of the Tampa Urban League in 1922. Only the Urban League, Hewitt argues, represented a lasting coalition among African American, Afro Cuban and Anglo American women. Even here, "traditions of deference and white paternalism often prevailed" (p. 269).

Hewitt, of course, is a prominent historian, well-known for her outstanding research on women's political history in the United States. On this score, Southern Discomfort may indeed be her strongest work to date. Southern Discomfort clearly locates and documents women's political activism at the center of Tampa's development using a wealth of newspapers and periodicals, club papers and correspondence. Given the dire need for more work on Florida women's history, and the fact that American political historians have been slow to incorporate the history of women or gender into their analyses, Hewitt's work fills an important historiographical hole. But Southern Discomfort does more. Sex, as Hewitt discovers, is often not the central, determining fact in women's political activism--it is their race, nationality, class or ethnicity. By comparing and exploring the relations among and within Anglo, Latin and African American organizations, Hewitt's work provides a new model for comparative American ethnic studies.

As with any path-breaking work, however, Southern Discomfort also raises a number of questions. Florida historians will be pleased to see that Hewitt makes a concerted attempt to integrate her history of Tampa into the larger framework of regional Southern history, rather than treating the city as yet another exception to longstanding generalizations about the U.S. South. But beyond the effects of Jim Crow segregation, her analysis fails to locate Tampa within a larger southern context. Instead, Hewitt compares Tampa to Miami--a city also too frequently dismissed by historians and social scientists as "exceptional"--in its ability to serve as a model of globalization and its impact on public life in the late twentieth century (p. 271). Hewitt makes passing mention of Tampa's place in New South industrialization, but she fails to incorporate these connections into her analysis in a meaningful way.

The same is true of the extent to which Hewitt documents and explores international and transnational connections between Tampa's immigrant and activist communities and the Caribbean region in which they live, work and move. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Tampa was not only growing rapidly but its population was highly mobile. Hewitt's attention to these transnational ties is strongest in the first part of her book, especially her work on las patriotas and their support for Cuba libre. But the reader loses a sense of this fluidity of human movement and international relationships by the second half of her work. Instead of strengthening or even building on these ties, Hewitt's description of women's activism becomes more isolated as Tampa grows.

In part, this may be a feature of the categories Hewitt employs. To structure her analysis, Hewitt adopts a tri-racial/ethnic classification for her subjects--Anglo, Latin and African American--believing this to be how Tampans viewed themselves and each other at the time. This is not a decision Hewitt takes lightly; she devotes nearly three pages to a discussion of racial/ethnic terminology in her introduction (pp. 12-14). Yet this terminology at times eclipses real and significant differences among her subjects. "Anglo," for example, refers to Catholics, Protestants, and Jews alike and obscures what were often important divides and existing racial biases that played a significant role in Jewish settlement in Florida. While anti-Semitic "gentlemen's agreements" and legal clauses may not be as well documented in Tampa's history as in Miami and elsewhere in Florida at this time, these divides were very much a part of Tampa's historical development as Arthur Teitelbaum and others have documented. Likewise, Bahamians and other Black Caribbeans play a very peripheral role in Hewitt's work and, she argues, had merged into the African American community by the 1900s (p. 13). Although Tampa was never as significant a center for Black international migration as Key West, Miami or Jacksonville, distinct ethnic communities were notable in Tampa by the early-twentieth century. Like the women activists Hewitt describes, foreign-born Blacks had to choose between many features of their identity in the early-twentieth century, Jim Crow South. But their political activism often remained distinct from that of native-born Black Americans, as seen in the national membership of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The large volume of foreign-born members in the UNIA, including Black immigrants from across the Caribbean and West Africa, has been well documented in works by W.E.B. DuBois, Judith Stein, E. David Cronon and others. Yet Hewitt makes no mention of these distinctions even as she discusses UNIA membership and activity in Tampa and Florida (pp. 267-268).

While these choices tend to obfuscate some of the intricate layers of human experience in early Tampa, they do not undermine Hewitt's overall contributions or the real strengths of her work. Southern Discomfort is a poignant reminder to historians of the complexity of Southern race and gender relations over the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The importance of national, international and regional ties to the industrial development of U.S. cities, and the historical experience of women activists in the United States is equally clear. As Hewitt concludes, "Without a fuller engagement with these multiple legacies--those that inspire us and those that discomfit us--we cannot hope to address the critical issues that confront women today" (p. 275). This work provides a path-breaking model for how to explore these varied legacies and to better integrate studies of gender, race and class into the larger framework of Florida urban and political history.

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Citation: Melanie R. Shell-Weiss. Review of Hewitt, Nancy A., Southern Discomfort: Women's Activism in Tampa, Florida, 1880s-1920s. H-Florida, H-Net Reviews. November, 2002.

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